why I do debate
(not for my self-esteem)
I do college debate, and it’s a large part of my life. Since I do it competitively, it takes up a fair amount of mental real estate. I think about other activities in relation to debate, or about other ideas by forming analogies to debate. I think about other topics the way I think about debates. Practically everybody I know and see on a regular basis does debate. And we all talk to each other almost exclusively about debate. I debate almost every single weekend. We leave early Friday afternoons and debate until late Friday night. We sleep on hard floors for unsatisfyingly short times. We don’t shower. Then we get up and debate for another four to six hours. More hours if you’re lucky and move onto outrounds. It’s one of the most valuable activities I’ve done, and also one of the most unpleasant, and I think the reasons for both are the same.
First, I do have to clarify that debate is unpleasant for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with why it is valuable. Debate is highly hierarchical. That is, social acceptance often hinges on competitive success. People largely agree that this is the case. They differ on whether this is a good thing, and also disagree about the reasons for it. I support the idea that if someone is extremely good at debate, there’s a reasonable chance that they are fairly dedicated as a person and maybe even a bit clever, and that there’s nothing inherently bad about wanting to spend your time with a hard-working, clever person. However, there’s a kind of excessive zeal to the way that people focus on competitive success that seems not at all reasonable or healthy. This extra devotion seems to stem not from an interest in sorting methods but a crippling attachment that almost every debater has between their own self-worth and debate success.
Debate also tends to be a bit stifling as you go on. If you spend Fridays and Saturdays debating, and Sunday recuperating, and Monday through Thursday practicing, you tend to spend a large amount of time, and soon almost all of your time, with other debaters. Very soon you begin to know everybody’s business, and realize that when you’re speaking to one person you’re speaking to many (in a not-at-all poetic way). Lying about exactly what you know gets difficult. Honesty about how you feel and what you think is always difficult. A friend of mine (a debater) has a hypothesis that all student groups are like this: a bit incestuous and complicated. This is one of the places where I like to be more optimistic than him and hope not.
A quick explanation of debate here: I compete on the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA). APDA is not the kind of debate where you get a topic and you put together a binder about it and talk about it with a partner for months and months. APDA has two teams, two people on each team. One team picks the topic at the beginning of each round. It could be about anything (that is potentially debatable). Tax policy, macroprudential measures. Nihilism, libertarianism. Foreign policy. Constitutional law. Whether Lucy should have let Charlie kick the football once (just once). Whether Ahab loved the whale. You get a few minutes to ask questions, then they give their speech and you give your speech. You begin when the round begins, not when you’re ready.
But APDA isn’t about being knowledgeable about a lot of things (though you’ll suffer a bit at the beginning if you don’t know anything). Nor is it about being quick (though that helps) or being aggressive (though some people find bluster convincing) or being well-spoken and clear (excellent skills, and highly marketable). APDA—debate—is about limitations and error. And so few things are about limitations and error.
The most valuable part of debate, and the most unpleasant part, is that you’ll always make mistakes. And if the system works, you’ll almost always get punished for your mistakes. It’s one of the most visceral and unpleasant experiences to lose because of a mistake. It never gets more pleasant, in my experience, to lose, even if you lose in finals. It’s never exactly nice to realize an error after you and your opponent have both realized your error. It’s too late to say that it doesn’t matter, because you’ve committed to being here for a weekend, and you’re spending quite a large amount of time yelling at others about why they’re wrong if you don’t care about it.
But here’s the thing: Debate doesn’t introduce errors or limitations to a life wholly devoid of them. Life is, in a banal sense, full of limitations. If you’re morbid, like me, you think about the 80 or so years you’ll spend on this Earth and wonder what exactly you can propose to accomplish in that amount of time. But life is also full of limitations because you’re full of limitations. Life is full of error because you make errors. You make errors because of hidden fault lines in your thinking. You rest your logic on faulty, cracked earth, plates made of hidden assumptions, biases, fallacies, poor attention, limited knowledge. And you come to correct answers and wrong answers in the same ways.
Most times, I doubt that we are punished for our errors, forced to seriously examine them. If you get a 75 percent in your class and manage an A, I very much doubt that you go back and look at those problems you missed. If you make a mistake, you move on, think about the next time, and dismiss it as a fluke. If your resume isn’t good enough the first time around, you come back and edit it, add bullets, and tweak it obsessively. Rarely do you look at your errors. Rarely are your errors so inextricably and unchangeably linked to the outcome. Rarely is the outcome one you cannot change. The round is over. The loss is settled. You lost, almost always, because of something you did or did not do. And if you are to get anything out of this, you reflect on your errors. You reflect not just on the fact you did not know or the thing you should have said; you reflect on how you can improve next time and every single time after that. And it comes pretty close to being a moment of grace, if that is what you choose.